Whilst there is much in Fianna Fáil’s education manifesto, Securing The Future to be welcomed, the party’s proposal to increase plurality in school provision is to further rollout the problematic Community National School (CNS) model.
Community National Schools were first opened in 2007 by Fianna Fáil’s Minister for Education Mary Hanafin TD. These schools were designed in close partnership with Catholic Church authorities. Existing Community National Schools, some of which have been in existence since 2008, are not sufficiently transparent. There is also uncertainty surrounding the democratic nature of the schools. This model of education is at best problematic and at worst damaging. While paying lip-service to inclusion, the model in practice supports the segregation of children along religious lines during the school day.
Fianna Fáil’s claim that the model is ‘highly successful’ is dubious and its pledge to extend the model is worrying. Educate Together has established a model of education that is truly inclusive. Parents around the country are clamouring for equality-based Educate Together schools for their children.
Divestment and progress on education equality
Fianna Fáil rightly recognises the need for diversity of patronage and divestment in the party’s manifesto:
“We believe that divestment and increasing diversity in school patronage is essential and we will engage with all education partners to energise this process.”
True, the divestment process has been disappointing and there remains 19 areas across Ireland that still wait for their ‘divested’ school. The tax-paying families in these areas were promised equality-based Educate Together schools by the State in 2013 and that commitment must be honoured.
Fianna Fáil’s claim that “the overwhelming focus on the long-term process of patronage divestment by the government has distracted from the more essential and immediately relevant question of how children from nonreligious backgrounds should be accommodated within the present structures” fudges the issue of equality in education. Families should not rely on the benevolence of a Church in which they have no belief and no stake to supply them with school places. Children should not be admitted to their local schools under sufferance, as outsiders to the ‘mainstream’. These children, be they Muslim, Hindu, non-religious, are not outsiders. They are citizens of the Republic and must be welcomed to a school that recognises and celebrates all the richness of diversity they bring.
Equalisation of funding
Educate Together welcomes Fianna Fáil’s commitment to implementing a gradual equalisation of funding for voluntary secondary schools so that their funding begins to approach that granted to ETBs and community/comprehensive schools. This will benefit the children in such schools whose education should be funded on an equal basis.
The removal of the cap on the expansion of the DEIS programme and enhanced investment in DEIS schools is a move towards equalising opportunity for all children as is the restoration of the Visiting Teacher Service for Travellers. EAL supports are vital in helping non-English speaking children settle and FF commit to revise the allocation criteria for EAL posts. Educate Together believes that investment and funding must be radically increased to provide proper supports for children with additional needs. All children deserve an equal chance.
The Fianna Fáil manifesto does not meet the urgency of investment and innovation that is needed in the education system. Our education system is underfunded. Addressing this is the key to our economic and social future. There should be a cross party consensus that investment in our schools, radically improving the funds available to boards and principals on the ground, providing balanced choice of schools so that all children are guaranteed equality of access and respect and improving the learning environment for all children are all absolute priorities for the next Programme for Government, whatever party forms it.